Resistance and tragedy

Published : Jan 27, 2006 00:00 IST

The massacre of tribal protesters in Kalinga Nagar exposes the Orissa government to criticism that it is pursuing industrialisation at the cost of its citizens.

PRAFULLA DAS in Kalinga Nagar

WHEN people across the world were exchanging New Year greetings, the tribal people of Kalinga Nagar in Orissa's Jajpur district witnessed perhaps the bloodiest day in their lives. On January 2, the police gunned down 12 of them who opposed the construction of a boundary wall for the proposed steel plant of Tata Steel. The murder of a policeman by the agitators sparked off the killing.

Although there had been hundreds of protest meetings, demonstrations and dharnas in Kalinga Nagar since the industrialisation process began in the area more than a decade ago, the agitation was never so bloody.

The demand of tribal people who would be affected by the proposed project was that the government allow the construction of the boundary wall only after the company paid them adequate compensation and ensured proper rehabilitation. Instead, they were silenced with brute force by the government. As shots fired from semi-automatic rifles broke the mid-day stillness, panic-stricken men and women ran helter-skelter. The firing continued for nearly an hour. The policemen appeared bent upon avenging the death of their colleague.

The clash was not entirely unexpected. That the situation in Kalinga Nagar was on the boil was known to the district administration. The people had protested several times in the past, and the previous protest was on November 26 when they gheraoed the local police station. Even the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had warned of recurrence of similar incidents in the area if adequate steps were not taken to deal with the issue of displacement.

On that black Monday, nine platoons of policemen came in vehicles and took position at the construction site to counter any protest by the tribal people. Some policemen, armed with self-loading rifles, surrounded the site. Executive Magistrate Subas Chandra Sahu, District Superintendent of Police Vinaytosh Mishra and District Collector Saswat Mishra arrived on the scene. By then the tribal people had started assembling at a distance to thwart the construction work as they had done on at least two previous occasions.

When the bulldozers roared into action, the men and women, armed with traditional weapons, closed in on the site, demanding stoppage of work and negotiations for the redress of their grievances. However, this time, there was no sympathetic administration waiting to pacify them. There were strict instructions from the State Secretariat to facilitate the construction, and the district administration was more than eager to obey. There were no discussions or appeals. Rubber bullets were fired and teargas shells were lobbed at the agitating crowd, to no avail.

The situation took an ugly turn when the enraged people captured a policeman. He was hacked by the mob. Soon guns were blazing and all hell broke loose. Even as the terrified people ran for their lives, the rifles did not stop sniping. Bullets pierced through their bodies. In less than an hour, the paddyfields near the site were reeking of blood. Twelve people, including a 13-year-old schoolboy and three women, were killed

Tension continued to grip the area as the angry people blocked all roads to Kalinga Nagar. Only mediapersons and members of Opposition parties were allowed to enter the area. The protesters started a dharna on the Daitari-Paradip express highway with four corpses they had recovered. Slogans against the Naveen Patnaik government rented the air as they waited for the remaining bodies to be handed over to them by the police.

Tension built up afresh on January 4 morning when the tribal people discovered that five of the bodies returned by the police had their palms chopped off. They alleged that the five had not died owing to the firing but were killed by the police. The police, however, clarified that the palms were cut for taking fingerprints as the victims were unidentified. But several former policemen and civil society organisations condemned the mutilation of the bodies, terming it as gross violation of human rights.

As the government tried hard to defuse the crisis, the people continued the roadblock keeping the 12 bodies on the highway. They cremated the bodies late in the afternoon after some social activists persuaded them to do so. The deaths united the tribal people and they vowed at the funeral ground that they would not part with an inch of their ancestral land for any industry. Visthapan Virodhi Janmanch, a fledgling body of tribal people, is leading the movement. The president of the organisation, Rabindra Jaraka, has been jailed since October on flimsy charges.

The Opposition parties branded the incident as the second Jalianawalabagh, saying that nowhere had so many people been shot dead for raising demands that were closely linked to their lives and livelihoods. "The tribal people who were opposed to construction of the boundary wall of the proposed steel plant were approaching the administration officials present at the site to discuss the issue, but the police opened fire without initiating a process of dialogue with them. The State government should not favour mining companies and industrial houses without rehabilitating the affected people. Naveen Patnaik is dancing to the tunes of industrial houses," alleged Orissa Gana Parishad (OGP) president Bijay Mohapatra.

Janardan Pati, secretary of the Orissa unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: "We cannot allow the killing of tribal people to set up industries. The reckless industrialisation should be stopped and the State's industrial policy reviewed."

THE seeds of discontent were sowed in the region in the early 1990s when the government started acquiring land, responding to an announcement by the London-based non-resident-Indian millionaire Swraj Paul, for setting up a steel plant in the State. The project never came up but other companies started making a beeline despite protests from the tribal settlers. Although most of the lands belonged to the government, some tribal people from adjoining areas soon joined their fellow people and made the area their home. The government then paid Rs.37,000 an acre (Rs.92,500 a hectare) to the displaced families and followed it up with another ex-gratia of Rs.15,000 an acre. Soon the State government started work on the 1.5-million-tonne Nilachal Ispat Nigam Limited (NINL) steel project. The Mesco Group followed it up with a 0.5-million-tonne steel plant. Until now the industrial complex has attracted 13 steel projects, including the one by Tata Steel.

But the tribal people continued to occupy the lands that the government had acquired from them. Unsure of an alternative livelihood, they protested whenever new projects were started. Subsequently, the government upped the compensation by another Rs.25,000 an acre. However, the people were never satisfied with the compensation and the rehabilitation package.

While the government hoped that the people would leave the villages, the latter were ready for a face-off. On May 9, they were lathi-charged while opposing the bhoomi puja for a steel project of Maharashtra Seamless. The tribal people were disarmed before the arrival of the local Member of the Legislative Assembly and State Finance Minister Prafulla Ghadei. They were made to wait for a few hours. The situation became volatile leading to a lathi-charge by the police when the crowd got restive. This was followed up by midnight raids on the villages by the police to search for the men who had fled into the nearby forests to escape police action. Inquiring into the incident, Special Rapporteur of the NHRC A.B. Tripathy blamed the administration for the fracas. "The incident was quite avoidable. The arrest of 26 people, including 25 women and 14 children, in the early hours of May 10 was very much avoidable," he said, adding that the "incarceration of the women and children in jail for 22 days was a serious violation of all canons of human rights".

Having got a raw deal by way of compensation, the tribal people were angered further by the sale of their land by the Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IIDCO), the nodal agency for development and rehabilitation in Kalinga Nagar, to industrial houses at Rs.3.35 lakhs an acre, almost five times what the government paid them. The IIDCO has acquired over 12,000 acres (4,856.23 hectares) of land in the area and made a neat packet in the process.

The people's suspicion about proper rehabilitation is not without grounds. A large number of people displaced by many projects in the State decades ago are still awaiting proper rehabilitation and resettlement. In the rehabilitation colonies of the NINL, people do not have a place of worship, a hospital or a burial ground. The NINL also went back on its promise to provide employment to one member each from the 111 displaced families living in the colony. Only 20 people have been employed.

"The benefit of industrialisation should not go to the industrial houses and rich sections of society alone. The tribal people should not be deprived of their sources of livelihood in the name of development," said Prafulla Samantara, president of the Orissa unit of Lok Shakti Abhijan, a people's organisation fighting against globalisation and for the right to livelihood.

The absence of a comprehensive policy on resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) in the State has resulted in long-drawn agitations against upcoming industries in different parts of the State. Even as a draft R&R policy is gathering dust and the project-affected people kept insisting on proper rehabilitation, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance government went on signing memoranda of understanding (MoU) with various private companies, promising them support to set up industries.

So far 43 MoUs have been signed and many of the companies are all set to mine in Schedule V areas, where tribal people enjoy protection against land alienation. With the diversion of large forest areas in Lanjigarh, Kashipur and Keonjhar, people have become refugees in their own lands, their livelihoods and land snatched away from them overnight.

The government's response to the mayhem at Kalinga Nagar came late with Naveen Patnaik shifting the Jajpur Collector and Superintendent of Police and raising the ex-gratia to the next of kin of the dead. He also ordered a judicial probe by a sitting High Court Judge. The government also suspended three doctors who chopped off the palms of five victims during post-mortem.

On the demand for a comprehensive R&R policy, the government woke up from slumber and announced that a committee headed by Revenue Minister Biswabhushan Harichandan will study the draft policy that was pending with it since August last.

Apart from bringing the process of industrialisation to a grinding halt, the firing has dented Patnaik's image severely as a tribal-friendly Chief Minister, which he was assiduously cultivating over the past six years. Even the tribal legislators of his ally, the BJP, are accusing Patnaik of having tribal blood on his hands, while pressuring their leadership to pull out from the alliance government. Even non-tribal leaders of the BJP, barring its Ministers, have criticised the police action. They blamed the district administration for the tragic deaths and decried the R&R policy.

As a serious debate rages over industry versus displacement in Orissa, the battle line between the government and the tribal people has become starker.

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